Okeh 4890 – Fiddlin’ John Carson – 1923

If there is a figure more deserving of the title of “Father of Country Music” than Jimmie Rodgers, one such contender is Fiddlin’ John Carson, who, while not the first to make records of what could be called “country music,” was undoubtedly one of the first to find great success doing it.

John William Carson was born in the north of Georgia—county of Cobb or Fannin—on the twenty-third of March, though there is dispute as to which year, probably 1874, though some sources suggest 1868 (earlier census documents, as well as his death certificate, agree with the later date, while later ones support the earlier year).  Before turning to life as a musician, Carson found work on the farm and railroad, as a jockey, making moonshine, and in an cotton mill.  In 1913, Carson participated in the first Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention, coming in fourth in the fiddling contest.  He went on to take home first prize from the Convention a total of seven times between 1914 and 1922, earning him the nickname “Fiddlin’ John”.  In the cradle days of radio broadcasting, Carson made his debut on the Atlanta Journal station WSB on September 9, 1922 to great public acclaim.  Soon after, he was noticed by Atlanta furniture dealer and Okeh record distributor Polk C. Brockman, who spotted Carson in a newsreel of a fidders’ convention, and persuaded Okeh record man Ralph S. Peer to record the fiddler.  On the fourteenth of June, 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson made his first record at 24 Nassau Street (now 152 Nassau Street NW) in Atlanta, cutting only two sides.  Peer reportedly thought the two tunes were “plu-perfect awful,” but released the record nonetheless, and was surprised when sales took off like a skyrocket.  Whatever Peer’s personal taste, he was too smart to pass up a sure thing, and it was clear that the people wanted what Carson had to offer.  Before Carson’s recording career began, fiddler’s Don Richardson and A.C. “Eck” Robertson had made records of “country” music, in 1914 and 1922 respectively, but both did so only sporadically and without enormous success.  Carson, on the other hand, began recording prolifically in the wake of his debut session.  Five months after cutting his first two sides, Fiddlin’ John traveled to New York City for another session, this time laying down a total of twelve sides, a number of which, like “You Will Never Miss Your Mother Till She’s Gone” and “Be Kind To a Man When He’s Down”, achieved considerable success.

Though far from the most skilled fiddler or talented singer, Carson appealed to record-buyers of the 1920s with his folksy manner and archaic sound that evoked memories of simpler times, which many longed for in the days of fast living, T-Model Fords, and New South industrialization.  Carson was also politically active within his state of Georgia, and used his music as a tool to further those ends, such as to promote the populist Democrat Tom Watson, or to condemn the accused Leo Frank for the 1913 murder of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan.  He continued to record for Okeh until 1931, producing a total of 155 sides, of which all but seventeen were released.  Many of those featured his daughter Rosa Lee Carson, better known as Moonshine Kate, and band the Virginia Reelers.  Three years after concluding his engagement with Okeh, Carson went to Camden, New Jersey, to begin a new series of recordings for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, an arrangement which only lasted but two consecutive sessions in February of 1934.  In those two marathon sessions, Carson, with Moonshine Kate, guitarist Bill Willard, and banjoist Marion “Peanut” Brown, recorded twenty-four sides, all of which but four were released, many of which were re-dos of his popular Okeh recordings.  Thereafter, he retired from professional musicianship.  In his later years he worked as an elevator operator in the state capitol of Georgia.  Fiddlin’ John Carson died in Atlanta on December 11, 1949.

Okeh 4890 was recorded around June 14, 1923, in Atlanta, Georgia.  These are takes “B” and “A”, respectively, both the earlier of two released takes of each side (only the latter of which are listed as issued in the DAHR).

Firstly we hear Carson’s history-making performance of the once-popular 1871 minstrel song by Will S. Hays: “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”.

The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, recorded c. June 14, 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson.

Nextly, Fiddlin’ John delivers an equally rustic performance of “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow”.

The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow, recorded c. June 14, 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson.

Okeh 45317 – W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith – 1929

One of the truly outstanding acts of old-time music was the fiddle and guitar duo of Narmour and Smith, who were quite comparable—both in style and ability—to the Stripling Brothers of Alabama, personally I’d even go so far as to venture that I might like these two better.

The pair was made up of William Thomas Narmour, the fiddler, and Shellie Walton Smith, who played the guitar.  Narmour was born on March 22, 1889 and Smith on November 28, 1895, both in Carroll County, Mississippi, where they spent most of their lives.  Narmour learned his craft as a boy, on a fiddle fashioned for him by his father—also a fiddler—from a cigar box.  He joined forces with Smith, his neighbor, to provide music at local functions.  When Smith was unavailable, Narmour sometimes with the local blues musician Mississippi John Hurt.  At a 1927 fiddle contest in Winona, Narmour and Smith were discovered by record dealer, talent scout, and veterinarian Dr. A.M. Bailey, who referred them to the Okeh company to cut a record.  Thus, they traveled some hundred miles north to Memphis, Tennessee, to record their first six sides on February 15, 1928.  Those first thee discs proved a considerable success, and so the duo returned to the recording microphone the following year, this time traveling a longer distance to Atlanta, Georgia.  That session resulted in one of the most successful “hillbilly” records of the time, a two-sider featuring “Charleston No. 1” and “Carroll County Blues”.  Its popularity was so that six months later Narmour and Smith took a train all the way to New York City, where they put down another eight tunes on two September days, plus an appearance on Okeh’s “Medicine Show”, a musical skit record much like those made by the Skillet Lickers.  They concluded their Okeh engagement in 1930, with two sessions in San Antonio, Texas.  After four years of recording silence, Narmour and Smith returned to Atlanta for one final marathon session, this time for Bluebird, who had also poached the talents of fellow old-time stars Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers for their respective last recordings.  In all, the duo of W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith left behind a recorded legacy of nearly fifty sides.  Both Narmour and Smith remained in their native Carroll County for the rest of their lives, living primarily as farmers, and later finding work at the local school as a bus driver and janitor, respectively.  Narmour also operated a garage in Avalon.  Willie Narmour died on March 24, 1961, two days after his seventy-second birthday.  Shell Smith followed him seven years later on August 28, 1968.

Okeh 45317 was recorded March 11, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia by W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith, at their second session.  Narmour playing the fiddle, and Smith on guitar.  Unfortunately, this junk store copy is quite worn; both sides play fairly well for the first two-thirds or so, becoming quite crackly toward their ends (such that if I tried to clean them up, I’d surely lose my mind).  Nevertheless, both sides still put out a strong signal over the crackle.

“Charleston No. 1”, as its name would suggest, was the first in a series of “Charlestons” played by Narmour and Smith, up to “No. 3”.  They later re-recorded the three “Charlestons” for Bluebird in 1934 titled as “The New Charleston”.  The number is said to take its name from Charleston, Mississippi, rather than the popular dance or the likewise named cities in South Carolina or West Virginia.

Charleston No. 1, recorded March 11, 1929 by W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith.

Narmour and Smith’s famous “Carroll County Blues” is a sublime performance, a prime example of just how these two really could get right.  Like with the previous number, they later followed up “Carroll County Blues No. 2” and “No. 3”, and re-made all three for Bluebird as “New Carroll County Blues”.

Carroll County Blues, recorded March 11, 1929 by W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith.

Okeh 40188 – Jack Linx and his Society Serenaders – 1924

In another installment in Old Time Blues continuing series on territory jazz bands, let us turn our attentions to a hot little group from deep down south: Jack Linx’s Society Serenaders.

Scarcely any information seems to be available regarding Jack Linx and his Society Serenaders.  Based in Birmingham, Alabama, they formed in the first half of the 1920s and played gigs around town.  In 1924, they traveled to Atlanta for the first of several sessions for the Okeh record company.  They returned to Atlanta every subsequent year until 1927—twice in 1925.  In that three year recording career, they cut a total of twenty-three sides for Okeh—including jazz standards like “Tiger Rag” and “Sweet Georgia Brown”, and original compositions like “Don’t You Try To High-Hat Me“—of which all but four were released.  When the Starr Piano Company brought their Gennett mobile recording laboratory down to Birmingham, Linx’s band cut three more sides, though all were rejected, this time calling themselves the “West Lake Ramblers”.  In 1929, the band secured a position as the house band of Birmingham’s stately new Thomas Jefferson Hotel and adopted the name “Jeffersonians” accordingly, and they played on local radio station WAPI the same year.

Okeh 40188 was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia on August 28, 1924 by Jack Linx and his Society Serenaders, their first released record from their first session, consisting of their second and third recorded sides.  It was also released in the United Kingdom on Parlophone E 5263.  The Society Serenaders consist of Coleman Sachs on cornet, Jack Linx on clarinet, soprano sax, and alto sax, Sidney Patterson on clarinet and alto sax, Seibert Traxler on clarinet, tenor sax, and baritone sax, Eph Tunkle on piano, Maurice Sigler on banjo, Frank Manning on tuba, and Carroll Gardner on drums.

First up, they play hotter than you might expect from a band called the “Society Serenaders” on an out-of-this-world rendition of Wendell Hall’s hit “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”, with a low-down and slightly raunchy vocal by banjoist Maurice Sigler.  Interestingly, it seems to be the only side they recorded to have a vocal.

It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’, recorded August 28, 1924 by Jack Linx and his Society Serenaders.

On the “B” side, they play the Art Kassel and Mel Stitzel novelty composition “Doodle Doo Doo”—which served as the theme song for the former’s Chicago-area band—featuring a dandy rag-style piano solo by Tunkle.

Doodle Doo Doo, recorded August 28, 1924 by Jack Linx and his Society Serenaders.

Victor V-40001 – Vaughan Happy Two – 1928

The following record is something a bit different from the run-of-the-mill—by any measure.  But if it’s that so-called “old, weird America” you’re looking for, as Greil Marcus put it, then you’ll hardly find much weirder and older than this.

The musical selections on these two sides are performed by the Vaughan Happy Two, a duo related to the Vaughan Quartet, a popular and prolific sacred singing group, though its members did not sing with the quartet.  The Vaughan Quartet, Happy Two, and several other associated groups were sponsored by the James D. Vaughan Music Company of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee a successful publisher of sacred music, the namesake founder of which also established the Vaughan School of Music in 1911 and radio station WOAN in 1922.  Vaughan’s Quartet first recorded in 1921 and did so extensively thereafter.  Many of their recordings were issued on Vaughan’s own private record label, as well as Victor and Paramount.  The Vaughan Happy Two—Arthur B. Sebren and Cullie G. Wilson—was formed in 1925, and made their first records in 1928, which they followed up with five more sessions between then and 1930, making for a total of four sessions for the Vaughan label and two for Victor, twenty-two sides in all.  Their recorded repertoire included both sacred and secular songs, and their traveling stage act reportedly extended to monologues and musical saw.  The recordings they left behind, at least the ones on this disc, are rather reminiscent of the parlor music from so long ago, an old fashioned style that unsurprisingly proved popular with many rural listeners in the 1920s, longing for simpler times as the modern world rapidly advanced around them.

Victor V-40001 was recorded on October 20, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia.  It is the second release in Victor’s “Native American Melodies” series, as they dubbed their V-40000 rural series prior to May of 1930.  It was probably released early in 1929, and was cut from the catalog in 1930.  The Vaughan Happy Two are tenor C.G. Wilson and baritone A.B. Sebren, accompanied on piano by M.B. Stroud.

They first sing “A Married Man in Trouble”, a song composed by prolific gospel songwriter James Rowe and Vaughan Quartet member Adger M. Pace. Though called the “Happy Two”, this song is quite the opposite (“how sad, how sad”), though indeed it is delivered in good humor.

A Married Man in Trouble, recorded October 20, 1928 by Vaughan Happy Two.

On the “B” side, Sebren and Wilson sing “Chicken”, which, while credited to J. Porter Thomason and Charles W. Vaughan, is an adaptation of the old minstrel song “Chicken Don’t Roost Too High for Me”, performed by artists as diverse as Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner and the Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and Dan Sane, as “Chicken You Can Roost Behind the Moon”).

Chicken, recorded October 20, 1928 by Vaughan Happy Two.

Bluebird B-8621 – Riley Puckett – 1940

Riley Puckett in the late 1930s or early 1940s. His most frequently published portrait.

With euphonious singing voice, enticing guitar playing, and a wide and diverse repertoire ranging from old folk ballads to modern pop songs, Riley Puckett, dubbed the “Bald Mountain Caruso” or sometimes “King of the Hillbillies” (an honorific contested by Uncle Dave Macon), was one of the most popular and prolific rural musicians of the pre-World War II era, both solo and as a member of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers.

George Riley Puckett was born either in Alpharetta, Georgia or thrity-five miles away in Dallas on May 7, 1894.  He was blinded in infancy by a treatment for an eye infection gone awry, though those who knew him suggested that he could still tell light from dark.  Subsequently, he attended the Georgia School for the Blind in Macon, at which Blind Willie McTell would later enroll.  Taking up the banjo at twelve and later switching to guitar, Puckett soon made a name for himself at fiddler’s conventions with his playing and singing, his beautiful voice and exceptional range earning him the nickname the “Bald Mountain Caruso”.  He was also noted for his unique method of guitar playing, relying on dynamic runs.  On September 28, 1922, Puckett made his radio debut with Clayton McMichen’s Home Town Band on Atlanta’s WSB.  In February of 1924, Riley Puckett and fiddle player Gid Tanner cut test recordings for Columbia, and in March they pair traveled to New York to record for the first time in two sessions.  His “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep” has often been cited as the first “country” record to feature yodeling, a full three years before Jimmie Rodgers made his first records.  After those two sessions, boy did the floodgates open; from 1924 to 1931, Puckett recorded nearly two-hundred titles for Columbia, notwithstanding the eighty-five plus he made as a member of the Skillet Lickers, with hits like “My Carolina Home” cementing him as one of their best-selling artists in the Old Familiar Tunes series.  After a break from recording during the Great Depression, Riley made his triumphant return in 1934 when he signed with Bluebird, ultimately producing nearly another hundred titles, including perhaps his best known song “Ragged but Right”.  A 1937 side venture took him to Decca for a further twelve.  Riley also sang on radio stations all around the South and Midwest; by the end of the 1930s, he was singing on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee.  After ten sessions for Bluebird, he had his final record date on October 2, 1941 in Atlanta.  Riley Puckett died from blood poisoning, the result of an infected boil, on July 13, 1946.

Bluebird B-8621 was recorded on October 1, 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Riley Puckett is accompanied by his own guitar and an unknown woman mandolin player.  It was concurrently issued on Montgomery Ward M-8885.

First up, Riley sings one of my favorites, a song that got its start in Tin Pan Alley with Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins’ “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” in 1922, which through some twists and turns and lyrical adjustments, found its way—perhaps by way of the medicine show circuit—into Southern folk and blues repertoires as “Nobody’s Business” or some variation on that, seeing recordings by Earl Johnson’s Dixie Entertainers in 1927, Mississippi John Hurt in 1928, and many others.  Riley himself recorded it three times, first on an unissued recording for Columbia in 1924, then twice more for Bluebird, in 1935 and—this one—in 1940.

Nobody’s Business, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.

On the flip, Puckett does his version of a popular big band hit of the day, Saxie Dowell’s “Playmates”—the melody of which was lifted from Charles L. Johnson’s 1904 intermezzo “Iola”—and gives a heck of a good delivery to boot.  Perhaps I just have my mind in the gutter, but with all the “climb up my apple tree, look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door,” this sure sounds like a lot of double entendre to me!

Playmates, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.